From the Archives: Jill Ireland, Actress Waged Public Battle With Cancer

Jill Ireland, the British-born actress who bore her private agonies publicly in order to help others, succumbed Friday at her Malibu home to the spreading cancer she had fought for six years. She was 54.

She slipped into a coma early Friday and died at 11:30 a.m. Her husband, actor Charles Bronson, whom she credited with helping her endure intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments and with whom she appeared in numerous films, including “Breakout” and “Death Wish II,” was at her side when she died.

Paul and Valentine McCallum, her sons from her first marriage to actor David McCallum, her daughter, Zulieka Bronson, her mother, Dorothy, and her brother, John, also were at her bedside Friday, according to publicist Lori Jonas.

Miss Ireland was first diagnosed as having breast cancer in 1984. She wrote about her mastectomy and recovery in her first book, “Life Wish,” and made upbeat talks and appearances to bolster cancer victims and raise money for cancer research.

In February, 1989, doctors told her that the cancer had reappeared and metastasized to her lungs. The disease quickly spread to her hip, femur and thyroid. She was given two to three years to live.


“I don’t want to die,” she said shortly after that. “It’s not an OK thing. Not right now. We all die one day, but I am not in the mood to do it yet.”

A different tragedy struck last November, interrupting her chemotherapy and prompting a cross-country flight in a chartered plane from her much-loved Vermont farm. Jason McCallum, 27, the son she had adopted at infancy with McCallum, had died of ingested and injected drugs.

She had chronicled his drug addiction and treatment in her second book, “Life Lines,” and had believed he was “clean” when the death occurred.

Miss Ireland celebrated a special day last month when a star honoring her work in more than 35 films was placed on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared frail and gaunt at that time, as she hoarsely said: “This is really quite a thrill.”

She had been working on a third book, “Life Times,” a series of profiles of her friends, when she died.

Miss Ireland was born April 24, 1936, in London. She was trained as a ballet dancer and first performed professionally when she was 12. For a time, she appeared with the Monte Carlo Ballet.

Singing and acting as well as dancing, she began performing in British films and television as a teen-ager, making her film debut in 1955 in “Oh, Rosalinda” with Sir Michael Redgrave.

She appeared in several of the “Carry On, Nurse” series of comedy films.

In 1957, Miss Ireland married McCallum, with whom she had appeared in several British productions, and the couple moved to Hollywood in 1962. She soon became a popular guest star on U.S. television series including “Ben Casey,” “Mannix,” “Star Trek,” and husband McCallum’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Her marriage to McCallum ended in 1967, and a year later, she married Bronson, becoming his permanent leading lady in a string of action films beginning with “Villa Rides.”

“I’m in so many Charles Bronson films,” she once joked, “because no other actress will work with him.”

In the late 1970s, looking for new challenges, Miss Ireland co-produced some of their movies.

She also recorded an album, “Hello and Goodby,” in 1977.

Off-screen, Miss Ireland devoted her time to positive speeches encouraging fellow cancer patients and their families to live fully. She referred to herself as a “survivor” of cancer, never a “victim.”

“Think of yourself and be happy. Make the most of your life and put yourself first,” Miss Ireland had urged women who had undergone mastectomies. “A breast does not make me who I am.”

She also sought to help families fight drug addiction, openly discussing son Jason’s travails. Miss Ireland had not determined until after the adoption that the infant had been born addicted to drugs.

She regarded former First Lady Betty Ford as a role model because of her public discussion of her own mastectomy and treatment for drug problems.

“I greatly love and admire Betty Ford,” she said last year. “She was very inspirational to me with her honesty about her breast cancer and then again with her candor about her drug abuse. If anything, if I can help other people feel less alone with the problem, that would be nice.”

With Bronson, she raised his two children, her three, their own daughter, and a friend’s daughter. Survivors include Bronson, six of the seven children, her mother and brother.

In an essay she wrote for Life magazine last June, Miss Ireland described the kind of funeral she wanted: “A real wake, with balloons, champagne, everyone in bright, happy colors, lots of food and music. A fiesta. A celebration of my life. . . . “

Funeral arrangements were pending.


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